On Location: High Style in the Scottish Lowlands

The Balmoral
The Balmoral

What do Scottish men wear under their kilts? If you’re in the coastal town of St. Andrews in November with light breezes coming off the North Sea, something fairly warm is recommended. The weather was actually quite amenable in the upper 50s during last year’s annual Scotland Means Business buyer/supplier conference. We toured this prim little university town, as well as a surprising array of stylish venues in Edinburgh, Glasgow and the gentle Lowlands countryside.

Firt, a quick lay of the land: Most U.S. groups typically fly into Glasgow. The moody Medieval capital of Edinburgh is one hour east. St. Andrews is about 90 minutes northeast of Edinburgh at the uppermost reaches of the Scottish Lowlands. North of that, the mountainous Highlands await with their well-known Scotch distilleries, Loch Ness and Braveheart bravado.

St. Andrews is enjoying renewed popularity of late as the hookup spot for the Royal Newlyweds, but it’s been revered by golfers as “The Home of Golf” since the game was invented here in the 1500s. The vaunted Old Course and neighboring links are not like what we know stateside. There’s not a lot of trees, the outlying seagrass is left wild, and the natural bumps in the terrain haven’t been flattened. There’s an almost raw naturalness to the game here and everything is unbelievably serene, from the fairways to the immaculate streets in town bordered by small cottages built over a century ago.

Avid golfers on this trip felt almost slavish appreciation while walking across the ancient Swilken bridge on the 18th fairway of The Old Course, where some of golf’s most storied rivalries have played out during the British Open. When legendary pro Tom Watson ended his career here in 2010, he famously bowed down to kiss the small stone span.

Apparently, there’s a lot of that.

The Fairmont St. Andrews
The Fairmont St. Andrews

“This is Mecca for golfers,” confirms Tom Goodfellow, National Accounts Director for Fairmont St. Andrews. “We see clients all the time come here and the first thing they do is kiss the ground.” For group biz, Goodfellow says the 209-room property is U.S.-owned and it was specifically designed for conferences/meetings with 15,000 sf of group space and a massive, 4-story atrium delivering loads of natural light for prefunction events.

The seaside Fairmont is situated alone on the outskirts of town overlooking two golf courses, including the Torrance Course used for qualifying rounds for the Open. Last year’s $27 million renovation revamped all of the guestrooms with new soft goods, delivering a modern, somewhat corporate ambiance softened with heavy tartan bedspreads. There’s also a new spa with suites that connect for small spa parties.

We enjoyed a 25-pax reception in one of the specialty suites where dignitaries from Bill Clinton to Tony Blair have visited, while taking in the views overlooking the coastline and spires of St. Andrews minutes away. For a lovely lunch venue, the waterfront Clubhouse restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows can easily accommodate a hotel buyout, serving dishes like Loch Fyne smoked salmon roulade with onions, capers and pumpernickel.

One hour northwest of Edinburgh, The Gleneagles Hotel is a comprehensive group property overflowing with stately elegance and respectful repose. Built in 1924 by the Caledonian Railway Company on 850 acres of woodlands, the “Palace in the Glens” was designed in the style of a grand French chateau with manicured gardens to match. It hosted the G8 Summit in 2005, and after $115 million in investments since, the place sparkles.

For beds, groups have a choice between 291 guestrooms and suites in new and historic buildings. The décor throughout swings from high-end residential to a kind of clubby moderne, and the finishes are exquisite everywhere. For group gatherings, there are 13 venues for meetings/events including a regal coffered ceiling ballroom for 300-pax receptions.

Gleneagles’ other big selling point is its gamut of outdoorsy pursuits on-property designed for corporate groups. Falconry, Range Rover driving, fly-fishing, clay shooting and equestrian activities complement the destination spa and three golf courses that will play host to The Ryder Cup in 2014.

Conference sessions took place at Turnberry Resort, Scotland, located in the Ayrshire west coast about 60 minutes west of Glasgow. Not sure if we’ve ever visited a more relaxed and productive group hotel as this Starwood Luxe Collection entry.

Almost like an enormous Hamptons farmhouse estate, the 207-room Edwardian-style property built in 1902 consists of one long building on a bluff overlooking a grand lawn, two top-rated golf courses and the Irish Sea. There’s also a row of 6- to 8-unit townhomes closer to the water for VIP groups, and a giant golf clubhouse with state-of-the-art video instruction.

Turnberry wrapped up a $60 million renovation last year and the new room look is fully committed to modern and minimalist without being sterile. The white/off-white palette is perked up with hardwood floors, mauve or chartreuse drapery/chairs, and lively B&W fine art photos. But the large picture windows framing the sea and vividly green grounds are the best part.

Because the property is fairly secluded and the layout and decor are so sophisticated yet straightforward, there’s a very bearable lightness of being here. It’s a setting where you can exhale and focus on the business at hand and the people around you. Likewise, the food. The restaurants and bars framed by tall windows showcase the seaside panorama, and the buffet in the hallowed 1906 Restaurant was one for the ages: Scottish west coast lobster, smoked haddock, oak salmon, delish cold-water rock oysters and foie gras torchon. We also enjoyed high tea in the lobby where the networking was easy and natural.

Turnberry is located less than five miles from the jawdropping Culzean Castle, built in 1792. You first pass through the thick gardens and swan lagoon before walking up to the promontory where the castle stands sentinel over the sea. The well preserved property offers a wealth of group events from bagpipe lessons to cookery classes, as well as multiple Medieval banquet spaces.

If you were to combine the propriety of the Englander with the good-natured down-to-earthiness of the Irishman, you’d come up with someone resembling a Scot. For example, Sir Sean Connery, who was born here in Edinburgh (pron: edinburrah).

Lifesize vintage prints of Mr. Bond and a winsome gal playing on the beach grace the guestroom loos at The Balmoral, part of Rocco Forte Hotels. This is Scotland’s grandest hotel dating back to its inception in 1902, and the kind of place that wins the prestigious Award of Excellence from the UK Tea Guild for Afternoon Tea, one of only two in Scotland.

The 168 rooms/20 suites share the same “comfy chic” decor as seems to be wont in ultra-luxe hotels in Scotland, complemented by 1,000-thread count sheets.

Beyond the lobby, the Palm Court Bar sets the tone with a harpist during tea and a pianist at night. For group dinners, The Balmoral offers a few gorgeous Belle Epoque drawing rooms, which we enjoyed with a military bagpiper who gave a rousing speech honoring the haggis we were about to be served (a local sheep delicacy). Planners can put on quite a show here: champagne, roast Scottish sirloin with Keltic cabbage followed by a raspberry cranachan, with a roaring fire and original chandeliers hanging from the 25-foot filigreed beam ceiling.

Sitting with Frances Maurer, Event Sales Manager, she said, “U.S. incentives are picking up although they’re a little more prosecco than champagne right now.” Mauer added that programs paired with Gleneagles are common because both hotels were built as part of the railway coming up from London.

You can walk from The Balmoral into the historic city center, considered to be among the most well-preserved in Europe. This UNESCO World Heritage site is centered around the cobblestoned “Royal Mile” street lined with 12th century cathedrals, lively traditional pubs and artsy cafes. Edinburgh resident J.K. Rowling wrote her first Harry Potter book in one of these cafes, and you can immediately sense how this city inspired her story settings.

The Royal Mile climbs up to the base of the city’s highest peak topped by the magnificent Edinburgh Castle, built in 1603, and home to the Scottish Crown Jewels. We took a look during a private tour, and then enjoyed the scenery from an escarpment towering over the city. A variety of private dining rooms inside the castle host groups of 40, 80 and 100, with bagpipe players and Highland dancers for entertainment. Many groups also book the courtyard for up to 500-pax Braveheart-themed galas between May-Sept with strolling minstrels.

A couple blocks away, the Scotch Whiskey Experience is basically a museum and educational center where groups sip scotch and learn about the history and different varieties. And, there are a few. This is the largest scotch collection in the world, where groups up to 12 can share a table for dinner surrounded by more than 3,000 carefully preserved bottles.

With the most comprehensive spa and largest total meeting space in the city, the 269-room Sheraton Grand Hotel & Spa, Edinburgh was purpose-designed for meetings and events. This year, it’s wrapping a multiyear renovation that converted the “old boys club” decor into a much more progressive attitude. Especially in the guestrooms, with clean wood paneling/floors, minimalist lines and textures, fresh smoke glass bathrooms, and media hub work desks. The 49 castleview rooms are big sellers, and we like how the windows open for a little fresh air.

Situated downtown, directly across from the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, the hotel features 11 meetings rooms including the 5,300-sf Edinburgh Suite ballroom.

During the last century, Glasgow was the center of iron ship and locomotive building in western Europe. Today, fashionable hotels/restaurants are both celebrating and challenging the old stoicism. Here are two that illustrate the breadth of experiences.

Blythswood Square in housed inside a historic downtown building circa 1823, which was previously occupied by the Royal Scottish Automobile Club. Many a Monte Carlo Rally race dating back to the 1950s started from this elegant manse. Today, the cheeky new 100-room hotel is a chic but ever-so classy mix of white, black and purple tones with lots of light coming in the many windows. The restaurant is a stunner with tall ceilings, modern art and a menu divided into “Contemporary” or “Classic”—ie: Welsh rarebit with smoked haddock and grain mustard mash.

For traditional Scottish luxury and hospitality of the very highest order, Hotel du Vin & Bistro at One Devonshire Gardens is set inside a row of five Victorian townhomes in the fashionable West End. Walking in here is like coming home—if you’re a duke in the 1800s. You just sink into the drawing room with its oak paneled walls, drastically comfy chocolate leather chairs and carved mantel over the fire. Two private rooms seat 50/16, where you will feel compelled to order the roast breast of grouse with chicory confit. Best to consult the sommelier on the vast wine list, though, promoted as “a key feature of the hotel.”